It's a running joke around here that Culture is the place other sections go to die. In fact, during the last decade, it's gone from News and Culture to just Culture, and has absorbed such sections as Tech and Sports. It can be a difficult section to succinctly define, at least not in the way that we can define Arts, Music, or Food and Drink. It's people, places, and events, but not the people, places, and events that fall under those other sections. It's looking at our community with a broad lens, while also examining the minutiae of life in this mid-sized micro-urban Midwestern university town.
A lot can happen in a decade, and this list is by no means a comprehensive take on what was best about it. We are mere mortals, after all. But we hope you can take a few minutes to appreciate this collection that we've assembled. We think it captures the essence of C-U, a place that while not perfect, we think is a pretty amazing place to live.
— Julie McClure, Culture Editor
BEST Event: C-U PrideFest
The springboard for the first Pride celebration was a riot at the Stonewall Inn, in New York City, in 1969. Fifty years ago, saying that you were “proud” to be gay or lesbian was a revolutionary act. But today, thankfully, expressing pride in who we are mostly elicits a mental shrug. And it should because, for all intents and purposes, we’ve won. Sure, some states (like Illinois) are better to live in than others, but our side is winning the culture war. So why the need to — literally — parade our “pride” all over the city?
Beyond the vital importance of continuing to take up space, there are still battles to fight. There are still LGBTQ+ adults, teens, and even children who turn to suicide. The American Medical Assocation has declared the killing of black, transgender women an epidemic. The administration is trying to ban transgender soliders from serving. The Supreme Court is deciding if employers can legally discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And there are still battles over damn wedding cakes.
But also, it's a hell of a good time.
I still remember how excited I was when we learned that Champaign-Urbana was going to host its first Pride Festival. Before Kevin Johnson and his team stepped up and improved everyday life for the LGBTQ+ community here, we had to travel to St. Louis or Chicago to celebrate Pride. But not anymore. And, thanks to The UP Center, it doesn’t look like we’ll ever have to again.
Our first PrideFest was humble, but perfect. Many people and businesses in the community helped, either by sponsoring, promoting, setting up vending stations, or just showing up. We had no protesters or “haters” trying to ruin everything for us. And even The News-Gazette gave us some tepid, but positive coverage. I am very proud that Smile Politely was one of the (if not the) festival’s strongest champions.
By its third year, the festival had expanded to the entire weekend, and festival goers now enjoyed three stages, a foam party, and many more vendors and musicians performing both indoors and outdoors in Lincoln Square Mall’s large parking lot. Now the celebration continues to grow with a parade through Downtown Champaign, a Drag Brunch, and more.
This is Kevin Johnson’s legacy. C-U’s PrideFest should never be discussed without giving credit to Kevin and his dedicated committee, who built this festival from the ground up. I hope they know how much they’ve given to Champaign-Urbana’s entire community. (TN + JM)
Photo by Eric Frahm
BEST Agri-tourism: Prairie Fruits Farm
Prairie Fruits Farm is my favorite place in all of Champaign-Urbana. There’s a magic to the farm that is especially present if you’re there on a summer evening. (No, that’s not just the smell of goats.) It’s beautiful, and the products the farm makes are so delicious.
Prairie Fruits Farm’s goats are the best goats I’ve ever met in my life, and in my decades I’ve met a decent amount of goats at petting zoos and farms. There are two breeds of goats: Lamancha and Nubian. The Lamancha goats are the ones with the weird, tiny little ears, and the Nubians are the ones with the long, floppy ears. They are equally delightful and hilarious, full of personality and joie de vivre.
Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell, founders and owners of PFF, are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met, which makes supporting PFF and their endeavors all that much more satisfying. In the time I’ve lived in C-U, the farm has expanded from being a goat farm and creamery to being a hub for food events and socializing, and buying and supporting locally made products. They offer classes, at affordable prices, so you can learn about their cheeses and other locally made cheeses, and how and when and why and with what to consume them. They regularly collaborate with local makers in the form of classes and workshops, carrying their products in the Real Stand Farm Store, and supporting other local businesses, like Delight Flower Farm, or yogis who lead yoga with baby goats. Have you attended one of the dinners on the farm? They’re expensive, sure, but they are incredible collaborations between the farm and the guest chefs who put together fabulous meals. Is there anything this community looks forward to more than Babies & Brunch? You’ll be hard pressed to find an event in C-U that is more widely appealing and enchanting as this one.
In short: Prairie Fruits Farm has become a destination in our community, a tourist attraction that hasn’t lost sight of the community that regularly supports it. I look forward to eating more cheese, more gelato, and connecting with friends over a cheese board and a glass of wine during a farm open house. (JH)
Photo by Stephen Kemp
BEST T-shirts: Jan + Her Husband
We should truly consider ourselves lucky to be graced with the presence of Jan and her husband here, as they walk through Urbana’s Market at the Square on a summer’s morning, living their best lives. This photo, featured in the 2015 iteration of BEST Culture, ended up being posted on reddit, Awkward Family Photos, and probably a ton of Instagram accounts after that, resulting in an extremely adorable Internet Moment™ (just kidding, we don’t own a trademark for such a term). This lovely sight reminds us about the simple joys in life, and Urbana got to be right in the thick of the internet buzz. Even though it was just a quick blip on the radar, this is one of the best cultural moments of the last decade. It made a splash with the cuteness factor attached to it, coated on real thick. (PS)
Photo by Natalie Kenny-Marquez
Best Local Column: Tom’s #Mailbag
I am simply unthrilled by the sale of The News-Gazette, like many of you. I understand that they ended up having no choice, but there was a reason for that, and I believe it very much could have been avoided. We are deeply critical of the paper, consistently, and for many reasons.
But there is no better representation of how the best parts of the paper are still vital and important and worthy of praise than Tom’s #Mailbag. It is a bright spot each week in an otherwise murky pool of bad news and shitty takes. Over the past decade, we’ve gone from confused by the inclusion of it bearing a hashtag, to not giving a shit and just recognizing it for what it is: the best weekly column around, by a good long shot. Each week, Tom Kacich answers various questions from readers about everything from politics to sports to history to restaurant openings. And each week, it is an engaging and extremely rewarding read, something only a veteran news reporter could manage. Tom does it with ease.
Of course he does! He is a staple in our community, and despite the fact that we have no indication about how much longer it will last, for now, we’re glad its been around, and hope to see it for years to come. (SF)
BEST GIF That Kept on Giving: Bruce Weber Jarling's to the Face
Fast forward to 2016, Jarling’s was kind of owned by a group of investors at one point, which included Weber, as well as Kurt Kittner, Ron Turner, and more — all of these folks mentioned here are connected to the Illinois program in some capacity. Alas, the GIF was given new and glorious life. (PS)
GIF by the Internet, potentially SBNation
BEST Political Engagement: Surge in Local Activism + Voter Turnout
Political engagement ebbs and flows over years and even generations, but the latter portion of this decade has seen a pretty significant shift in activism both nationwide, and right here in Champaign-Urbana. While a backlash due to another political party overtaking the White House is pretty typical — we certainly saw it in the Tea Party movement following the 2008 election of Barack Obama because you know, racism, I mean socialism — the response to the utterly unexpected (though maybe not in hindsight) election of Donald Trump unleashed a wave of people participating in increasing levels of political involvement. From the Women’s March to airport protests over the Muslim Ban to March for Our Lives to climate rallies, we saw versions of these national events playing out in C-U. In the past three years, many more people have called their Congressperson, knocked on doors for candidates, ran for office themselves, and/or showed up at the offices of elected officials who wanted to take away healthcare, loosen gun regulations, and fall in lockstep with every horrific presidential policy (cough cough...Rodney Davis...cough cough).
Midterms are notorious for low turnouts not just here in Champaign County, but nationally as well. Last year was an exception. A big exception. Overall turnout in the county increased from an average of 54,530 voters in the past four midterms to 80,112 in the 2018 midterms. An even more exceptional occurrence was the flood of student voters resulting in exponentially larger numbers at every campus precinct.
The student turnout most certainly made a difference in the blue sweep of county offices, most of which had been long-held by Republicans, which led to a good amount of grumbling from local Republican voters (you can read more about that in last year’s WORST column).
It sucks that it took the election of Racist Shitbag (fun fact: this is what my phone autocorrects to when I type “Trump”...thanks to my spouse) to kick some of our apathetic asses into gear, but here we are. (JM)
Photo by Sam Logan
BEST Political Tweet: Carol Ammons' Takedown of Bruce Rauner
Though there's a good amount of red in this state, it is still sometimes hard to believe that Bruce Rauner served as our state’s governor for a few years. You probably saw him at one point or another, wearing his Carhartt jacket (and oh god, don’t get me started about this one) around Champaign County to try to fit in here, an area Rauner somehow assumed to be full of people that couldn’t see through his bullshit. Thankfully, we can see right through that bullshit to a tweet like this one, which hit dead on in every capacity it could. Representative Carol Ammons, coming in hot right here with this absolute scorcher of a tweet:
I love this total burn to Rauner, a billionaire who certainly doesn’t have as much (if any) experience riding public transit as many of his constituents do. While I’m not sure if he ever saw this tweet, we certainly did. (PS)
Photo by Carol Ammons
BEST College Sport: Women’s Volleyball
In this community we focus a lot on men’s sports, particularly Illini basketball and football. This is not unique to C-U by any means, it’s generally the case in most college towns. Those two programs have not offered us much to get excited about in the last decade, but that doesn’t mean that these past 10 years have nothing to speak about in terms of college sports. While there are many that warrant recognition, Illini women’s volleyball has been a definite standout, with seven NCAA appearances, each of those times advancing to at least the Sweet Sixteen, and they were national runner-up in 2011 and made the Final Four in 2018. However, do not forget that there is another college here in town — Parkland College — and their women’s volleyball team has been KILLING it for a majority of the decade. They reached the NJCAA Division II National Title match six times over the course of the decade, winning the title twice in that time.
Also, volleyball is SUPER fun to watch. It’s fast-paced and exciting to watch these stellar athletes throw themselves all over that court. (JM)
Photo by Scott Wells
BEST Social Media Moment: Golden Harbor’s Facebook Page
I can’t fully express how sad I am that Golden Harbor’s social media presence is no more. It was funny and uplifting, and made our BEST lists in 2015 and 2016. Remember those anime videos that were edited to feature Golden Harbor dishes? Truly inspired and an absolute delight. It was run by Sophie Sun, a long time Golden Harbor employee who has since moved away. She’s missed greatly, too.
Thankfully, Golden Harbor is still as delicious as ever, and the current employees are friendly and helpful. One improvement to the Chinese restaurant’s internet presence is the ability to now submit orders online; it’s super easy and straightforward. No, we’re no longer being reminded through social media that we are special; instead the food lets us know that things are done with care and love for the customer. But we shall always hold a place in our hearts for the Facebook page that was. (JH)
BEST Cultural Advocate: Sam Smith of Krannert Center
The list of things that Sam Smith does here and abroad is astounding. When he’s not bridging the gaps in Champaign-Urbana’s long history of campus / community divides through his work at Krannert Center, he’s spending time in Sierra Leone working through Rotary to bring fresh water to underserved communities. When he’s not serving on the Board of the University YMCA, he’s assisting youth in the community bringing arts engagement and opportunity to those who need it the most.
Fact is, work like this is often difficult, and requires the patience of a lion. Sam embodies everything we love about Champaign-Urbana. He works diligently, and frequently. His presence is inside of activations and organizations without consideration for recognition. And above all, he is a genuinely warm spirit. Spend five minutes listening to him speak about what he does, and you will see what I mean. (SF)
Photo by Alisa Greene
Best Park Renovation: Hessel Park
We have not yet compiled a list of the best parks in Champaign-Urbana, but when we do, Hessel Park will be a top contender. This park has a little bit of everything, appealing to a wide swath of the community: mature trees, a walking path, tennis and volleyball courts, plenty of pavilions for gatherings, a solid playground game, and of course the splash pad. Plus Jarling’s is across the street. When my kids were tiny, we spent an awful lot of spring and summer late mornings at Hessel. It was wonderful then, and it’s even better now, after an overhaul that began in 2016. It was the first time in 20 years any improvements had been made, and wow did it make a difference. The original splash pad was pretty darn sad, a fact that came into stark view when I would visit family in Bloomington-Normal and see the amazing splash pad offerings there. The playground was always fine enough, but now it’s brighter, more interesting, and more accessible. And let’s not underestimate the importance of newly refurbished bathrooms. (JM)
Photo from Champaign Park District
BEST New Festival: Matsuri
Japan House is a local treasure. And if you haven’t discovered it yet, then you obviously don’t read Smile Politely very often, because we are not shy about expressing our great love for this place and the cultural experiences it brings to our community. In this decade, director of more than 20 years Kimiko Gunji handed the reins to her daughter, Jennifer Gunji-Ballsrud. You can read more about their family’s involvement with Japan House here. Ever since, Gunji-Ballsrud has placed the utmost importance on connecting Japan House with the broader C-U community.
Key to that connection has been Matsuri, a Japanese festival that has quickly become a beloved local event. The first year they planned for about 500 attendees, and several thousand showed up. Five years in, they continue to up their game, bringing in more local vendors and incorporating more Asian cultures (this year they added Indian cuisine and arts to the mix), while bringing back favorites such as The Candyman and Ho Etsu Taiko drum group. Matsuri made our BEST list in 2017, and it rightfully deserves its place in BEST of the decade. (JM)
Photo by Melinda Edwards
BEST Politicians: Carol + Aaron Ammons
A truly dynamic duo on the local political stage, nothing truly passes muster for the (D)s these days without the approval and support of Carol Ammons, and her husband, Aaron. Between the two of them, they’ve held Urbana Council seats, served as State Representative and County Clerk. Their accomplishments are their own, of course, but there is no denying how powerful and influential the pair are.
And that is good news for all of us. Their causes? Social justice; racial justice and economic repair; women’s rights; queer and trans rights; environmental justice; strenghtening oversight on law enforcement; releasing voter suppression; union stewardship. More of this over the next ten years please. (SF)
Photo from Aaron Ammons for County Clerk Facebook page
BEST Champion for C-U: Carly McCrory
Of course, as we go through our BEST of the decade week, there are plenty of people who make this place a pretty terrific place to exist. Someone that has comprehensively championed the community is Carly McCrory, who is a total diehard for this place. You won’t find anyone that can tell you more about living in Champaign County, and why you should live your life here, than her.
McCrory is currently the Director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation, where she spends her days showcasing the amazing benefits to living and working in C-U from a business perspective. Low cost of living, very little in the way of commute times, affordable options for developers and housing, excellent education offerings, and more. Her work has helped develop campaigns that promote the community to the outside world in You're Welcome and Chambana Proud, not to mention that she is a mouthpiece for arts and cultural engagements in C-U as she sits as the President of the board of 40 North.
There's more depth to what she's been able to provide the people of the community, far more than I can write about here. She doesn't do the work for the recognition either, which makes it even more deserving. She’s an invaluable mouthpiece for Champaign County because she’s such a genuine showcase of what you can do as a member of the community. (PS)
Photo from Carly McCrory’s Twitter
BEST SP columns: A Building, a Feeling, and a Latrine, Abecedarian Amble, The Rainbow Connection
Okay, so we are cheating a bit here but honestly, it's just too hard to choose between these three columns. They are all very different, but they all very much capture the essence of Smile Politely. The irreverancy, the deep dive into the crevices of local culture, the recognition of often underrepresented communities. So, in no particular order:
A Building, A Feeling, and a Latrine by Tom Ackerman
It was his first Halloween edition which convinced me that Tom Ackerman’s new column, A Building, A Feeling, and a Latrine, was always going to be worth reading. Because of Tom's beautiful and eccentric way of viewing and interpreting the architecture around him, when I drive down St. Mary’s Road, I see not a grain silo, but rather a “terrifying ghost castle … inhabited by some kind of mad nocturnal corn doctor.”
Tom’s columns are deceptively brilliant. While at first you think you’re simply going to enjoy some funny/silly jokes along with a picture or two of buildings or gross bathrooms (and you will), what you’ll also get are unexpected insights into the buildings themselves from a man with a bright and hilarious imagination. My favorite example is when he told all of us that he’d discovered a “tiny ecosystem” growing on the “derelict” water tower by the train tracks, and for that reason, he’d christened it “The Champaign Whimsy Platform.” I would have never noticed the tiny garden on top of that old water tower, but because of Tom, it will always now be known (to me, at least) by its dignified new name.
Tom’s column is informative, interesting, and never fails to be funny. I delight in it. But I will never forgive him for what he did to the mural of Roo. (TN)
Abecedarian Amble by Cope Cumpston
"Abecedarian is? Look at it as ABCD and on from there. Should you choose to join me, I will be offering a typographically-inspired exploration for 2014 of 26+ objects, events, places, and more that I find compelling in our community.
Champaign-Urbana is, for the incisive observer, an extraordinary place. It might look on first acquaintance like a “typical small midwestern town” bordered by cornfields, yet do a bit of bumbling around and you can find a remarkable range of delightful and thought-provoking personalities, pursuits, and resources."
The introduction to Cope's first installment of this whimsical column pretty much tells you everything you need to know about her writing and her insightful peeks into the intricacies of C-U. As of today, we have 15 letters of the alphabet worth of this delightful column, perhaps the goal of accomplishing all 26 in 2014 was a bit ambitious, but I believe we are the better for it. Cope puts time and care into each column, taking us on linguistic journey that is always worth the wait. (JM)
The Rainbow Connection by Tracy Nectoux
Alas, this rather simple but incredibly important column began and ended before my time as Culture Editor. It was curated weekly by former editor-in-chief Tracy Nectoux, and was sadly laid to rest upon her departure. The Rainbow Connection was a round up of weekly events centering the LGBTQ+ community. No editorial commentary, merely a list of dates, times, and descriptions. On the surface it doesn't seem like a lot, but as a resource for the community to see, all in one place, welcoming and inclusive spaces, it was quite valuable. It's also a historical record of sorts, a showcase of what C-U has had to offer and also what is no longer. We'll discuss the loss of queer spaces later this week. (JM)
BEST Funding Initiative: Urbana’s Arts Grant Program
The City of Urbana has gone to great lengths to help fund a variety of programs related to arts and culture in C-U. Obviously, the City has a particular interest in things happening in Urbana, but the fact that there’s $80,000 in funding each year that’s dedicated to helping these projects even exist is terrific.
Every year, the Urbana’s Arts + Culture Commission hears from a variety of community members that apply for funding, taking the time and energy to devote their attention to these matters, and see them through to the end providing a ton of assistance along the way. It is worth applauding their dedication to prioritizing the creation of a rich cultural climate, making sure these creative projects continue to get support they need to carry on. (PS)
Photo from City of Urbana’s website
BEST Resource for Families: Chambanamoms
In the previous decade, if you wanted to know what in the hell to do with your kid in this community, you were relegated to seeking out bits and pieces of information from various resources like newspapers, radio promotions, park district brochures, and the like. I didn’t have kids then, but I can imagine that for parents who did the deed in that decade and in this one too, this decade has been decidedly easier for them.
I don’t go a week without looking at Chambanamoms.com, and for good reason. It is a comprehensive site devoted to helping parents learn about the opportunities that exist here for things to do with kids. Founder Laura Bleill and her husband Tony, along with a team of dedicated writers and editors, have turned a little idea into a very very big project, and we are all the beneficiaries of that, regardless of whether you have kids or not. They helped define a new era of online publishing (along with this here magazine site), and would you believe me if I told you we get along great, and have been partners and supporters of one another since the beginning? (SF)
Screenshot from chambanamoms.com
Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, Tracy Nectoux, and Patrick Singer contributed to this article.